Stakes Grow in Wisconsin

“It is we who plowed the prairies; built the cities where they trade;

Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid;

Now we stand outcast and starving midst the wonders we have made;

But the union makes us strong.”

-- Lyrics to “Solidarity Forever” the 1915 union anthem sung by government union protesters as police cleared them from the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison.

It’s a big day in the Battle of Wisconsin.

The layoff notices for more than 1,000 state workers are ready. The state Senate has declared the fugitive Democratic members in contempt and subject to arrest. A judge has allowed police to clear union activists from the capitol after a 15-day occupation of the statehouse.

State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald told Greta Van Susteren Thursday night that he believes that some of the fugitive Democrats have been sneaking home and spending the night in their own homes. That was part of the motivation for Republicans to take the steps of fining the fugitive members $100 a day for every day of session they miss and passing the contempt resolution.

Now, law enforcement agencies will have the power to arrest any Democratic Senators they see rather than simply informing them that their presence has been requested in the capital.

The Democratic boycott, now in its third week, has prevented the legislature from acting on any fiscal issues. Gov. Scott Walker says that work stoppage will force him to terminate 1,200 state employees today in order to balance the budget by the end of the fiscal year in June.

Walker also told reporters Thursday that he has been in negotiations with some of the fugitive Democrats to return to work. Both sides certainly have motivations to end the impasse. While Walker’s proposal to curb the collective bargaining power of government unions has become increasingly unpopular with state voters as the stalemate has dragged on. The Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, look terrible for refusing to work and living on the lam.

Walker said he would not yield on his plan to limit collective bargaining for state workers as it is for federal workers. One path to compromise, though, might be for Walker to embrace a sunset provision suggested by some Senate Republicans that would require the measures to be reconsidered in two years. But any changes would mean starting the legislative process over, not something that would appeal to Republican lawmakers who have spent weeks under siege by union activists from across the country.

Remember that only one Democrat need be present to allow the Senate to convene on fiscal issues. Of the 14 members at large, perhaps one is willing to take one for the team and end the politically destructive stalemate. It would bring a withering attack from unions and certain primary opposition, but it would get 13 others off the hook.

Obama Walks Fine Line, Not Picket Line, With Teachers

“What I can’t support is when those collective bargaining rights are stripped.”

-- Education Secretary Arne Duncan on a conference call with reporters expressing support for teachers’ unions after calling collective bargaining a “tool to drive student achievement.”

President Obama heads to Florida today to appear with former Gov. Jeb Bush to tout the success of Miami Central Senior High School, which has managed a turnaround under the changes to state education policy enacted during Bush’s tenure.

But the teachers unions so crucial to Obama’s political rise and presidential future hate, hate, hate Bush’s policies. Recall how former Republican Charlie Crist tried to win a Senate seat on repudiating the Bush policies and nuzzling the teachers unions? He almost pulled it off because not only do the unions loathe what Bush did, but, as in most states, they have massive political power in Florida.

So here is Obama, who has embraced a sliver of the kinds of changes Bush has sought throughout his career, validating Bush’s policies by appearing with him at a showpiece of the conservative education agenda.

Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to soften the blow a bit on Thursday by expressing solidarity with Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida government worker unions looking to protect their power to collectively bargain (and go on strike) against Republican legislative proposals.

But it has to sting the union groups that were arguably the most responsible for Obama’s 2008 victory to now see their man standing shoulder to shoulder with the leader of the national conservative education overhaul effort.

As a candidate, Obama promised that if collective bargaining rights were threatened when he was president that he would put on “comfortable shoes” and march with unions. Instead, they get a conference call shout-out from a cabinet secretary and a photo-op with the right wing’s point man on school reform.

The other part of Obama’s Florida trip is to try to revive the political fortunes of Sen. Bill Nelson. Nelson looks increasingly vulnerable as Florida continues to move to the right and he has been an unstinting advocate for government unions. Not surprising since without their support he would be a sure loser in 2012.

But Obama is hoping to use the school reform issue to shed his image as a liberal and reposition himself with swing voters for 2012. But the union outrage over even modest Obama suggestions about pay-for-performance and ditching seniority as the sole measure for tenure show the dangers in alienating these single-issue voters.

Unemployment Dip Will Lift Obama

“8.9 percent”

-- Bureau of Labor Statistics’ unemployment rate for February.

The unemployment rate fell below 9 percent for the first time since April of 2009, a sign that the economic recovery may be taking hold.

The report shows 192,000 new jobs created in February, a jump from the disappointing 63,000 jobs that were created in January.

While the February job creation numbers are still below what’s needed to spur substantial reductions in unemployment, the combination of increased job creation combined with more long-term unemployed workers giving up the hunt helped push the rate under 9 percent after 20 months.

Democrats credit delayed benefits from President Obama’s stimulus spending program and Republicans credit Obama’s willingness to give up on proposed tax and spending increases. But it is worth noting that both sides credit Obama.

Economists suggest that the number will likely return above 9 percent as those unemployed for long periods of time return to the labor pool, but having the psychological barrier of 9 percent broken will provide a short-term boost to Obama.

Dems Embrace Gimmicky Accounting in Cuts Battle

“They’re not serious. When they can’t even be honest about the numbers, you know they’re not serious.”

-- Senate GOP aide to Power Play discussing the spending plan proposed by the White House.

Only in Washington could 11 be considered half of 61.

The White House and congressional Democrats say they are ready to meet House Republicans “halfway” on spending cuts. But the House GOP plan calls for $61 billion in reductions for the next seven months while the White House has identified a total of $11 billion for the same period.

So why isn’t the administration saying that the president is willing to meet Republicans a fifth of the way on cuts? Call it selective subtraction.

When House Republicans came up with their fiscal plan for the rest of the budget year, Democrats said the new House majority was breaking its promise to cut $100 billion in spending in its “first year.”

Republicans said in January that they really were cutting $100 billion because their proposal came in $100 billion below president Obama’s original request for the final seven months of the year from March 1 to Sept. 30. But Republicans eventually yielded this point and ended up touting $61 billion in cuts from current spending for the final 28 weeks of the fiscal year – a rate that would cut $100 billion over a full year.

The failed effort to claim $100 billion in cuts led to a profusion of stories from the Washington press corps about the craven collapse of the Boehner Republicans and the failure of the Tea Party movement to reform Republicans. The GOP paid a steep price for some gimmicky accounting.

You can imagine, then, the dismay among Republican congressional staffers to see Senate Democrats and the White House using the same gimmicks to claim cuts.

Democrats had fun Thursday embracing the original Republican cuts formula and touting their own $41 billion in cuts already made simply by not passing Obama’s budget last year. Democrats argued that by keeping spending at essentially 2009 stimulus levels, they were racking up savings.

But Thursday’s accounting stunt won’t solve the underlying problem for Democrats here – a lack of agreement in their party on cut levels.

The White House has proposed $6.5 billion in new cuts to current spending. After $4 billion in reductions under the two-week, stopgap spending plan that kicks in at midnight, there are still some $57 billion in House Republican cuts still pending.

With Speaker John Boehner and Obama more than $50 billion apart on funding the rest of the fiscal year, it will fall to moderate Senate Democrats to find their happy zone. Power Play suggests that you keep your eye out for a $25 billion cuts proposal from some of the most endangered Senate Dems. Watch Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. and Jon Tester, D-Mont., closely.

Until there is a real Senate proposal and not just the mathematics of political embarrassment, the administration faces death by a thousand cuts. Well, actually, death by 14 cuts.

House Majority leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said Thursday that his team was preparing another two-week resolution to keep the government going with $4 billion in cuts like the one Obama signed Wednesday. The Republican perspective is that they will take their cuts in a lump sum of $61 billion for 28 weeks or at $4.4 billion a fortnight -- whatever they can get.

One thing Republicans won’t do, though, is try to claim the $100 billion threshold again.

Conservative Hopes Fade on Debt Ceiling

"I think raising the debt limit is the responsible thing to do for our country, the responsible thing for our economy. If we were to fail to increase the debt limit, we would send our economy into a tailspin."

-- House Speaker John Boehner to the Wall Street Journal.

Investors were relieved to hear House Speaker John Boehner say that he was all in for an increase in the debt ceiling. And it looks increasingly unlikely that conservatives will be able to stop the rise in the $14.3 trillion current borrowing limit.

Remember, assuming all the Democratic members of the House agree to the president’s request, only 25 of the 242 Republicans need to join them. With all the concern on Wall Street about what a refusal would do to bond rates, it seems unlikely that there wouldn’t be 25 votes.

The two-week extension of government funding approved this week sets the stage for a mid-March showdown on three fronts – current spending, a pending request from the president to increase the debt ceiling and a an expected House Republican plan on entitlement reform.

While Republicans are urging Obama to join them in pushing a fix for Social Security and Medicare, the prospect of a grand bargain seems increasingly unlikely. The Senate shot down a plan from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to prevent a government default in the event of a debt-ceiling refusal, a serious blow to Republican hopes for a delay.

Unable to stop the president’s debt request even if he wanted to, Boehner seems to be looking to take some of the sting out of the eventual passage. But that vote, which could see perhaps two-thirds of the majority break with the speaker, will still hurt.

Obama Cautions NFL Owners

"I'm a big football fan, but I also think that for an industry that's making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way, and be true to their fans, who are the ones who, obviously, allow for all the money that they're making."

-- President Obama discussing a dispute between NFL players and team owners.

President Obama said Thursday that he hoped it wouldn’t be necessary for him to intervene in a labor dispute between NFL owners and players because he has “a lot of other stuff to do.”

But Obama had a word of warning for NFL owners, who must decide by the end of today whether to back down in their latest contract offer to the players’ union. In a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon, Obama highlighted the billions made by the leagues owners and said the industry needs to be “true to their fans.”

If the talks break down today and players go on strike, Obama might apply considerable public pressure on the owners to give in to player demands.

From the 2012 Quote File

“I will meet many, many people — maybe all of the people [in Iowa]. If I decide to run, I will be shaking hands with everybody.”

-- Real estate mogul/reality host Donald Trump to the Des Moines Register distancing himself from the remarks of an adviser who told reporters that Trump needn’t “go shake hands among the pig farmers.”

And Now, A Word From Charles

“When the president came out and spoke yesterday about this, he talked about this like it was a bus accident, a tragedy. It is incomprehensible why he couldn't say it could have been a jihadist attack, a part of the war on terror. This was an attack on the American military abroad, an attack on our country, an act of war by a terrorist entity.”

-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier” discussing the attack on a busload of U.S. airmen in Frankfort, Germany.